Review: A Darkly Satirical Glimpse Into Life ‘Off Broadway’

Torrey Townsend’s backstage fiction is an indictment of the real world’s overwhelmingly white, disproportionately male theatrical establishment.

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Off BroadwayNYT Critic’s Pick

It is the fall of 2020, and the American National Theater is desperate to survive the pandemic.

In Torrey Townsend’s blistering and hilarious satire “Off Broadway,” presented by Jeremy O. Harris and streaming free on Broadstream, this tenaciously middling nonprofit is millions of dollars in the red, and operating with only a skeleton crew.

But it sees one route out of financial calamity. When it finally reopens, it will do so with a surefire smash: Al Pacino in “Othello,” playing the title role. In blackface.

Andy, the company’s staggeringly underqualified artistic director, doesn’t recognize this as regressing to a shameful and banished tradition. Rather, he frames it as a brilliant provocation, a metatheatrical challenge to quaintly limited thinking.

“Y’all are gonna get eaten alive,” Marla, his horrified associate producer, warns during a Zoom meeting, but no one pays the slightest heed. She is Black; the others are white. They are happy to rationalize the idea.

And that, like most of what happens in “Off Broadway,” doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.

Directed by Robert O’Hara, who also directed Harris’s “Slave Play” and is an accomplished satirist in his own playwriting (“Bootycandy”), this backstage fiction is both raucously funny and devastatingly on point. It is an indictment of the real world’s overwhelmingly white, disproportionately male theatrical establishment — not just in New York, but nationwide.

This spiky critique arrives with perfect timing: as the industry begins to emerge from well over a year of shutdown, with many companies having publicly pledged their allegiance to the goals of the initiative We See You, White American Theater. Will this indeed be a reset to a more vital, inclusive theater, or merely a blip? “Off Broadway” wants to know.

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.

Structured as a series of Zoom calls, it’s powered by a top-notch ensemble. The company’s ailing founder, Daryl, is deliciously played by Richard Kind as a shambling, pretentious gasbag, untethered from reality. He is on the verge of retirement when a ticked-off letter writer mocks him as a “morally insensitive, artistically incompetent fraud.” His rage kills him before his cancer can.

Andy, played by Dylan Baker, is his chosen successor. That casting is our first clue that Andy will turn out to be a deeply unnerving guy. (This is a compliment; no one does creepy like Baker.) At least as thin-skinned as Daryl, and just as aggressively certain of his own laudable intentions, Andy shuts down any internal criticism of the company’s racism — in hiring, in programming and in what Marla calls its “fusty, elitist, Anglo Saxon neoclassical fetish.”

He sees himself as a hero for retaining two people of color, Marla (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Steph (Kara Wang), on his ravaged staff. He is thrilled at “the optics” of promoting Marla from literary manager, and when he promotes Steph to replace her, he promises a raise — eventually. “Fingers crossed,” he says.

The surprising beauty of Zoom here is that the format doesn’t prioritize one character over another. Even when Andy monopolizes a meeting, steamrolling Marla and Steph, the eye of the camera in their little rectangles is unblinking. We see in their faces how strenuous it is to endure him silently.

And when he is alone online with Steph, we also see that working from home is no barrier to sexual harassment. With that plot twist comes a new layer of grievance. The company’s managing director, Betty (Becky Ann Baker), reflexively defends Andy. And when Steph takes graphic evidence to The New York Times, no #MeToo article comes of it.

Well paced at nearly two hours, but segmented to allow watching in shorter chunks, “Off Broadway” entreats us to notice whose voices, perspectives and experiences are dismissed, talked over, ignored. It asks who in the theatrical establishment is willing to listen, and who is willing to act — and act differently — based on what they hear.

That is the question of the moment. Whether we get a healthier, more urgent and empathetic American theater depends on the answer.

Off Broadway

Through Sunday; broad.stream/off-broadway

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